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Leaderless youth will not bring this Government down

The modern left has few more treasured iconic events than the French uprising of May 1968. 10 million workers occupied or walked out of their workplaces in the biggest general strike in European history. Thousands of radical students demanded the end of French capitalism. As barricades were erected across the nation, President Charles de Gaulle flew to Germany to consult with his military advisors. Europe’s rulers looked on with alarm. But what the French call les evenements de mai 1968 is not just an inspiration for today’s emerging anti-Coalition movement. It is a warning from history. From the perspective of the radical left, the uprising was a catastrophic failure.

De Gaulle dissolved Parliament and the right stormed to victory in the elections. The French Communist Party (PCF) lost over half of its seats. Workers did win concessions such as an increased minimum wage, but the Gaullist order remained undisturbed.

May 1968 is an example of what happens when a mass movement spontaneously emerges but lacks political leadership. The PCF had refused to give the uprising any political direction and spent half of its time slagging off radical students. Without leadership, the passion and anger was directionless and fizzled out. The Italian Hot Autumn of 1969-1970 – when millions of workers also went on strike – petered out for similar reasons.

After the unexpected outbreak of student revolt in Cameron’s Britain, inevitable comparisons were made with the 1960s. The spirit of resistance, apparently extinguished by the Thatcherite juggernaut in the 1980s, appears to have revived. I was privileged to take part in the occupation of my university, University College London, and witness scenes that would be instantly familiar to a veteran of the 60s radical student movements. But I can’t help but be concerned at the resuscitation of other ideas from that decade: not least, that we don’t need leaders; that you can change the world without taking power; and that students, or ‘the young’ more broadly, will lead ‘the revolution’.

Laurie Penny has emerged as the most eloquent voice of the emerging youth movement: her reportage of  disillusioned kids being batoned by the state has brought the brutal reality to a shocked wider audience. And yet there are strong echoes in her work of perspectives that were all the rage in the 1960s. She writes:

The young people of Britain do not need leaders, and the new wave of activists has no interest in the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.”

Political parties had betrayed the young and were no longer vehicles for political change; an “organic networking” rejected “the old deferential structures of union-led action” as well as the Life of Brian-style sects; and ideological differences were discarded in favour of raw action.

One of Laurie’s Tweets summed up to me a growing attitude in one section of the new student movement: “Obvs [obviously], the unions are not going to lead this revolution- young people will lead the charge. But they might lead it to a general strike.”

These ideas were popular with student movements across the West in the 1960s and 1970s. This was perhaps more true in the US than anywhere else. The guru of the US New Left was the sociologist C. Wright Mills who denounced the Marxists’ “labour metaphysics”. His followers rejected the ‘Old Left’ concept that the working-class would be the agent of change: instead it would be students, young people, or oppressed minorities like African-Americans. Trade unions were written off as conservative and as part of the establishment.

Unlike the later stages of the US New Left, Laurie does not write the trade unions off. But she has an implicit warning for them. Their support was obviously welcome, but they must keep their distance and not try to take over a movement that was not theirs.

When the Unite leader, Len McLuskey, wrote… encouraging union members to lend their support to the ‘magnificent student movement’, he hit precisely the right note – one that respects the energy of these new networks of resistance without seeking to hijack it.”

I share Laurie’s enthusiasm for the new movement, and I am in awe of her reportage. But I part company with her on where we go next. Students, or even the broader category of “young people”, will not – and must not – lead this movement if it is to succeed. We are the first wave and, I hope, an inspiration for others to follow. The baton must be passed to working people who are likely to be the next to resist the Government’s cuts agenda. It is working people – organised as a force by unions – and not students who must lead the fight against the Coalition.

There are reasons the students have moved against the Government first. There is the obvious: they were promised the abolition of fees by one of the Coalition parties, but instead the cost of a university education has been tripled. It is such a betrayal and so patently undemocratic that revolt was more than justified. But students are, historically, the first to move because – frankly – they have more time on their hands than working people; they are not dependent for a job for sustenance; and they do not have responsibilities like keeping a family fed. They have less of a stake in the system and, as a result, there are fewer consequences when it comes to taking their gloves off and fighting back.

Yet the things that make students the first to revolt do not put them in a position to lead a movement to victory. Students are a transient group: most are only in higher education for three years. They have yet to go through many of the struggles that huge numbers of working-class people experience: like low pay, a lack of affordable housing or unemployment. As elsewhere in the Western world, higher education has exploded in the past thirty years and university students are more representative of the public at large than during the last wave of student vanguardism. But they are still disproportionately middle-class and not in any position to articulate the grievances of working people as a whole. As an organised group, they do not pose a threat to the system in the same way millions of organised workers do

We could broaden it out to ‘young people’. Laurie’s articles have captured the most exciting element of the new movement: the involvement of thousands of working-class sixth-formers who have set the tone for the protests since November. They represent a whole new generation being radicalised for the first time. But I doubt that anyone would argue 17-year-olds are going to lead a movement to take the Government down. In any case, it is difficult to talk of ‘young people’ as a whole: they are as diverse as the rest of the population and include inner-city kids as well as aristocratic Etonians.

Laurie’s cry against leadership finds echoes across the new movement. The talk is of “autonomous action”: that we can all, individually, take the initiative and strike a blow against the system. Aaron Porter’s inept (or “spineless”, as he himself put it) leadership of the NUS has fuelled the idea that this should be a movement without leaders. But a critique of poor leadership does not have to mean a critique of all leadership. It should, instead, prompt a call for leadership that is genuinely accountable to the movement.

I do not believe it is possible to change the world without taking power. We are up against a Government that rules because it has political power. To defeat it, it has to be replaced with something else. More generally, the emerging movement is fighting a neo-liberal form of capitalism that, in the last 30 years, has become entrenched across the globe. The idea an enemy as mighty and organised as this can be fought by a disparate movement containing different, conflicting ideas and strategies seems fanciful to me. Chaotic dissent is eminently manageable.

Without aims and political direction, movements fizzle out. You don’t have to go back to France in 1968. Some may remember the anti-globalisation movement that briefly existed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Where is it now? It disappeared in large part because it lacked clear objectives and focus. With no obvious end game, activists will eventually become demoralised.

Indeed, the lack of a coherent alternative will never win mass support: it just reinforces the ruling elite’s ‘There Is No Alternative’ ideology. It may be exciting to be part of an amorphous movement bubbling with lots of radical ideas, but that offers no concrete alternative to the way things are. The fight to destroy something without having anything to replace it is nihilism. If we have no overall answer to the key issues facing society – whether the lack of affordable housing or an alternative to the cuts agenda – then we will change nothing.

In any case, leaders will, in practice, emerge. Some have more time than others. There may be some who have more time, who are more articulate, better connected, and so on. But these de facto leaders will not be accountable to anyone. An aristocracy of particularly committed activists will soon surface (or, let’s face it, already is). We need a democratically elected leadership that is responsive to those it represents – thus avoiding the dead-end of careerists, incompetents and general megalomaniacs.

That some of these ideas should dominate the early stages of the anti-Coalition movement should come as no surprise. The left remains virtually non-existent as a political force in Britain, crushed by the New Right in the 1980s and the neo-liberal triumphalism that followed the collapse of Communism. Our generation has grown up without a left. It has not been there to take leadership or give direction to a new movement. Thatcher’s successful war against the trade unions has left them an alien concept to most of my generation.

But I think we are also seeing the ‘neo-liberalisation’ of dissent. The ‘cult of youth’ is one of the mainstays of modern consumer capitalism. The idea of ‘autonomous action’ appeals to the rampant individualism that neo-liberalism has unleashed in our increasingly atomised society. There is even talk of ‘dissent entrepreneurs’.

I believe that the practical realities of the coming year will move this debate on. The most important contribution the student revolt has made has been to show it is possible to fight back. When workers are faced with the loss of jobs, benefits or services, they can ask: ‘If the students did it, then why can’t we?’ Trade unions have been battered over the last thirty years but, with seven million members, they remain by far the biggest civil society movement. In the coming months, they have the capacity to mobilise millions of working people against the Government. Only this action has the ability to bring political and economic powers to their knees.

When there is a mass movement representing more than the sixth-formers and students, the question of political leadership will become more pressing than ever. I would argue for a movement of trade unions and working people – with the young playing a key role as activists – that drags the Labour Party into becoming a genuine progressive alternative to the Government. Others will argue for a different kind of political leadership. But let’s move on from calling for leaderless youth to lead the charge. It didn’t work in the 1960s. It certainly won’t work now.

4 Comments

  1. Great article though I am royally fed up with hearing about may -68 and Karl Marx. Is there nothing else? Has there been no other memorable event since 1968? Has there been no other economic theorists since Marx? (and if you mention Trotskij ..)
    This movement urgently needs a new agenda and a new set of arguments and heroes. Even the fascists have figured out that dressing up in suits is a good idea.

  2. [...] to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of leadership [...]

  3. [...] he proposed to give me a “lesson” about the “failure” of 1968. I’ve heard this argument before. It’s one which takes a narrow focus on electoral arithmetic and ignores the huge cultural and [...]

  4. Andy Y says:

    But the youth did have a leadership, National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts organised a national walkout to continue the student movement after the 10 november demo and 130,000 came out across the country. the movement continued with no support at all from the official NUS leadership, Aaron Porter etc. They had a leadership committed to struggling to defend students’ interests and needs which the undemocratic NUS did not provide.

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